February 25, 2020

Torah Portion: All that glitters is not gold

Where does the expression “Break the rules” come from? Perhaps from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa:

“Moses turned and went down from the mountain carrying the two tablets of the Pact. … As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the golden calf and the dancing, he became enraged and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 32:15-19).

So who was the first rule breaker? Moses for shattering the tablets? Or the Israelites for dancing around the golden calf a mere 40 days after promising Moses, “Everything that God has spoken, we will do!” (Exodus 19:8)?

Let’s give the children of Israel a little leeway. Even though time passes quickly for most of us, those 40 days for the Israelites must have seemed an eternity. Picture it: After the most awe-inspiring episode of thunder and lightning ever, the mountain quaking, the shofar sounding and The Voice — God’s voice, no less — ringing out from the top of a mountain, Moses and God have disappeared together on the top of that scary mountain for 40 days — out of earshot, out of sight, driving the Israelites nearly out of their minds with anxiety and fear. 

Here they are, having followed an unfamiliar God and a strange man out of Egypt, across a parted sea, into an unfamiliar wilderness only to be left alone for weeks — with nary a tweet or an email to comfort them or ease the stress. No wonder they gathered “against” Aaron, brother of Moses, and said to him, “Come on, make us a god who will walk before us, for that man Moses, zeh Moshe ha-ish, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him, lo-yadanu mah hayah lo” (Exodus 32:1).

And Aaron responded as so many teenagers do when their parents leave them unchaperoned: “Hey, everybody, party at my house this weekend!” And he makes them a golden calf to dance around as they cheerfully empty the liquor cabinet.

But what is it really about when the kids (or adults) party too hard? When golden calves come along to substitute for the God who speaks to our better selves?

What’s it for you? What’s your golden calf? What are you finding to worship instead of God? What unhealthy ways have you found to distract you from your worries?

It doesn’t have to be an obsession or an addiction. It doesn’t even have to be something bad to begin with that turns unconsciously into something “golden calf-ish,”something less healthy than you or God intended. 

On top of the mountain, Moses and God thought they were creating something so marvelous for the Israelites down there at the foot of the mountain. They were so into what they were doing for 40 days nonstop that they didn’t even notice that the Israelites missed them, didn’t imagine that the children of Israel might be wishing that they’d just come home for dinner with the family once in awhile. For the Israelites, God and Moses saying, “But I made these tablets especially for you” didn’t really cut it. Maybe the tablets of the law were Moses’ and God’s golden calf.

Those golden calves, they’re seductive. They start out seeming so innocent. And we can so easily lose track of how much attention we are paying them, and how little attention we are giving to other, more important aspects of our lives. They can take our freedom away without our even noticing. 

Is there a cure for golden calf worship?

I’m not the first person to notice the interesting juxtaposition in the text. The last thing God writes down for Moses before handing the tablets over and sending him down the mountain to the disturbance below are some very familiar words: 

V’shamru v’nai Yisrael et ha-Shabbat la-ahsot et ha-Shabbat l’doratam brit olam . . . The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time — it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days, God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed shavat va-yinafash (Exodus 31:16-17).

“Va-yinafash” comes from the same root as nefesh, meaning soul, spirit, breath. If at least one day out of seven we stop doing what we do the other six, God offers us a “soul rest” (shavat va-yinafash). You don’t need to dance around a golden calf to receive it. You get it from stopping the usual for long enough to become aware of the unusual. 

In Parashat Ki Tisa, Shabbat comes a little late to the Israelite dance party at the foot of Mount Sinai, and maybe even to Moses and God, who are working so hard on the mountaintop. But it comes right on time to us placed in the context of this story of the golden calf, this story of what can go awry when we miss the opportunity — when we choose not to take the opportunity — to replenish and refresh our own souls.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (